With the 20-percent purchase of Reaction Engines, will BAE Systems soon make the UK the next major space-faring nation?
By: Ringo Bones
Well, at least in the near future, BAE Systems could sell to Virgin CEO Richard Branson a space tourism “aerospace-plane” that’s more reliable than the Virgin Galactic Space Ship Two, but as BAE Systems purchases 20-percent of Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines for UK£20.6-million in a deal that will see the defence giant’s expertise applied to research on a privately held company’s engine, which combines jet and rocket technology.
Nigel Whitehead, managing director at BAE Systems, said: “The potential for this engine is incredible. I feel like we’re in the same position as the people who were the first to consider putting a propeller on an internal combustion engine: we understand that there are amazing possibilities but don’t fully understand what they are, as we just can’t imagine them all. It could be very high speed flight, low-cost launches into orbit or other fantastic achievements.”
For 20 years, Reaction Engines has been developing its Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) which works like a conventional jet engine while in the Earth’s atmosphere, sucking in oxygen-rich air to burn with its hydrogen fuel. However, once it hits hypersonic speed starting at five times the speed of sound – about 4,000 mph or three-times the speed of a typical hunting rifle bullet – in the thin upper atmosphere, it switches over to become a conventional liquid-fueled rocket engine using the liquid oxygen that it carries as the oxidizer to burn with its hydrogen fuel. The ability to switch between two very different modes of operation means that the SABRE engine system is lighter than existing conventional liquid fuel rocket engines which have to carry much more liquid oxygen in its operation where used up tanks are then jettisoned.
Reaction Engine’s SABRE’s technological tour-de-force is the development of a proprietary heat exchanger which cools the air going into the engine to a level where it is almost liquid before it is ignited, allowing the SABRE engine to swap between jet and rocket modes. The proprietary heat exchanger can cool hot air from more than 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees Celsius in less than 1/100 of a second. With further research and funding, the UK would be able to operate its own practical aerospace plane that can send astronauts to low Earth orbit at a much reduced operational costs than NASA’s Space Shuttle or those Russian rockets launched at Baikonur Cosmodrome.